Mitch Kapor on Second Life

Yesterday I heard Mitch “Lotus 1-2-3” Kapor give the third of three talks at the UC Berkeley I-School on “Disruptive Innovations I have Known and Loved” (podcast). This talk was about Second Life; the first two were about the PC and the Internet. It was a very nice talk I would have enjoyed more if I hadn’t had a cold. Even with a cold I was pleased by two things:

1. A graph of on-line Second Life activity. It was increasing at roughly the same rate as SLD-forums activity.

2. A comment that the short-term effect of similar technologies is less than expected; the long-term effect is far greater than expected. One long-term effect Kapor predicted is virtual meetings. I knew someone who was head of design for a very large powerful company — supposedly a dream job. But he had to travel all over the world to meet with his subordinates. Incredibly exhausting. So it wasn’t a dream job, and he gave it up.

I knew about the “disruptive technologies” idea from my work on variation in rat bar-pressing, which led me to read Clayton Christensen’s excellent The Innovator’s Dilemma. Disruptive technologies can be as simple as hydraulic power, which caused several steam-shovel companies to fold.

I had not thought of SLD as a technology; but I realized that’s what it is: A weight-loss technology. Disruptive, who knows, although Aaron Swartz was optimistic quite early. And today in the SLD forums I read this:

I’ve lost 85 lbs. and I have 25 lbs. to go and I just. Can’t. Quite. Process that idea. . . I’m at a new job where no one knows that I used to be incredibly heavy and there’s even a really cute fellow faculty member who seems to like me. He smiles at me. A lot. It’s nice. Everything is so . . . fantastic. I’m so happy I’m practically beside myself. . . . Almost every morning . . . I catch sight of myself in the full-length mirror out of the corner of my eye and the first thought is still “Is that me?”. And I have to stop. And look. And wrap my arms around my tummy – my much, much smaller tummy – and think “Oh that’s right. That IS me.” It always makes me laugh.

Podcasts of his earlier talks here (PC) and here (Internet).

How to Start a Food Demo Company

At the Berkeley Whole Foods a few days ago, a friendly man named Hunter Austin was demoing Alvarado Street Bakery Sprouted Wheat bread. “Baked locally, sold [frozen] nationally,” he said. He was giving out little grilled cheese sandwiches. It turned out he had his own demo company — food companies hire him to demo their products. He had started the company four years ago. Before that he had owned and run a restaurant. He made lots of money but he was working seven days a week. The pay worked out to $15/hour.

Why did you choose this as your escape route? I asked. “You want to know the truth?” he said. “Because it looked really easy.” He did demos for someone else for a few months then decided to strike out on his own. He made a brochure advertising his services. Then he went up and down the aisles at a supermarket writing down the names and addresses of companies whose products he liked. He sent them his brochure. What happened? I asked. “I got business,” he said.

That’s how his business began. It turned out to be harder than it looked. “The first ten demos are fun,” he said, “the next twenty are sobering, and after that it’s a job.” Now he mostly hires people to do the actual work. This was the rare demo he did himself. His company is called Demo Demon.

How Things Begin: The Flynn Effect

The Flynn Effect is the steady improvement in IQ scores over the last 50 years or so in many places. It was documented by James Flynn, a professor of moral and political philosophy at the University of Otago. Flynn gave a talk at Berkeley recently. I asked him how the Flynn Effect came to be.

Flynn finished college at the University of Chicago in one year (lots of advanced placement) and went on to get a Ph.D. at the same school. His first job was at Eastern Kentucky University. It was during the Korean War; better schools were afraid he’d be drafted. He lost that job because of his CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) membership. He got another assistant-professor job at Lake Forest. He lost that job because of his socialist views, although “sins” such as assigning readings beyond the set test were also given. He and his wife decided to go to New Zealand, where his politics would be more acceptable. He got a job at the University of Otago, where he has been ever since.

In the 1980s, he started to write a book defending humane ideals. One > question he wanted to answer was how to combat racism. He came across Arthur Jensen’s work. Jensen’s work was not easily dismissed. It was based on data. To properly answer Jensen, he believed, you needed data — a radical view for a philosophy professor. This was outside his area of training. He asked a professor of psychology for advice. The psychology professor was dismissive; his attitude was “what could you possibly contribute?” But Flynn did not see that psychology professors were substantially smarter than everyone else; the necessary skills should be within his reach, he thought.

He studied the math behind IQ tests for two years. He started looking at data. He looked at IQ test manuals and discovered that the raw scores kept increasing over time. He found six examples. He wrote a paper based on these examples and sent it to the Harvard Educational Review. The editors (who, unknown to Flynn, were graduate students) rejected it. Everyone knows intelligence is going down, one reviewer wrote. This made him mad. He went out and found 14 more examples. With 20 examples, he wrote a paper that was accepted by Psychological Bulletin. The reviewers were stunned, he said, but couldn’t find any holes in his case. It appeared in 1984.

Arthur Jensen pointed out that the tests concerned were heavily influenced by education and predicted that a test like Raven’s would show no gains. Flynn collected data from around the world (14 nations) and found that the largest gains were on Raven’s. The resulting article appeared in Psychological Bulletin in 1987.

Flynn said that only now (in his new book What is Intelligence?) can he give a coherent explanation of the gains.

How Things Begin (Oakland Art Murmur)

The Oakland Art Murmur is an art-galleries-open-late event that happens the first Friday of every month. It is about a year old. It started when two galleries in a cheap-rent district of Oakland got together. Soon other galleries joined them. There was a meeting at which “nothing happened” (according to a gallery manager) but they got together on paying for advertising and printing. How much did it cost each gallery? I asked. “Not much.”

Each month it has grown larger. More galleries and more people. Recently the City of Oakland began a shuttle bus to take people around and a few galleries now participate that are not close to the original ones. The event has a new name, too: First Fridays Art Night. This is not as weird as it sounds; I learned that there are many First Fridays events at cities all over the country, including Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, DC, but Oakland’s is unusually large — around 40 galleries, whereas in Washington DC there are about 30.

In honor of Freakonomics I visited the Rock Paper Scissors Collective, which turned out to be the most crowded art gallery I have ever seen. People were practically lining up on the street to get in. (Inside was a show of cartoon art and a few racks of clothes.) It felt like every artist in Oakland was there. Across the street was the opening of an exhibit of work by Timothy Brown, which consisted of food or food-related things (such as spoons) in blocks of transparent plastic. I really liked some of it. Upstairs at another gallery a dozen people were finishing a meal. Each person had been given $100 (play money?) which they used to bid for the various dishes.

I learned about the Murmur because a week earlier I had met one of the three founders of The Moon, a nearby art store that opened that night. I was surprised that a senior in college (Mills) is starting a small business, much less an unusual one. At the Murmur I met a woman who had just started a preschool. It was two days old. Craig’s List was involved. She had three partners. “I’m very impressed,” I said. “Most people never start anything.” “You’re starting to walk across the street,” she said.

It was way fun not only because most of the art was quite different than what I see in big-city higher-rent galleries (New Orleans, San Francisco, New York) but also because the people I met were friendly and easy to talk to. Not every conversation went well, however. I saw a guy who sells at the Farmers’ Market. “Are you an artist?” I asked. Yes, he said, but that might be misleading because he was a lot of things. “What else are you?” I asked. He was too tired to answer my question, he said, “but thanks for saying hello.”